LIONS AND TIGERS AND CHITAL (lots and lots of chital), OH MY! MOVING OUT OF AFRICA'S SHADOW, INDIA IS EMERGING AS THE COUNTRY TO HEAD TO FOR THE DREAM SAFARI.
TO SOME, A wildlife safari in India may seem a tad ironic. After all, any trip to India is a safari in and of itself, given the varied wildlife that roams the streets here - in the large metropolitan areas of New Delhi as well as in the tiniest of villages. On two different multihour drives through the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, we have countless sightings of langur and rhesus monkeys, peacocks, cattle egrets, donkeys, goats, cows, wild boars, eagles, camels, and wild horses. We even spot an elephant - and all this before entering Bandhavgarh and Pench National Parks, where two new safari lodges are changing the way safaris go down on the Indian subcontinent. I mean, it's a jungle out there.
Indian safaris have always played second fiddle to African ones, with the allure of the latter continent's big-five game dominating Hollywood movies as well as numerous novels the world over. Africa's varied wildlife, luxurious lodges, and private game reserves have historically proved too much competition for India, which traditionally has lacked neither a comparative infrastructure nor an equivalent level of sophistication. But in a new joint venture between Conservation Corporation Africa (CC Africa) - one of the continent's leading conservation and safari specialists, and which runs more than 40 luxury game lodges in six African countries - and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces, India's most recognizable hotel chain, $3 million (and counting) has been plunked down to make over the Indian safari.
FOR THOSE WHO may not know, India is home to more than half of the world's endangered tigers, though its numbers are declining fast. Poaching and other environmental concerns have contributed to the Indian tiger population's plummet from 40,000 at the turn of the twentieth century to a downright shameful figure that today is estimated to hover between 2,500 and 4,000. And India holds the distinction of being the only country in the world in which both lions and tigers reside. Intrepid travelers, bear that in mind when you come here and go on safari.
I soon learn, though, that India's national parks are also home to a slew of fascinating animals that I've never heard of (and not just because some of them are referred to only by their Hindi names). Do you know what a gaur is? I thought not.
Because of that, Taj and CC Africa have planned five new luxury game lodges in five national parks in India. The first one, Mahua Kothi, just opened in Bandhavgarh National Park, in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Bandhavgarh is home to the highest concentration of Royal Bengal tigers in the world; an estimated 55 of them make their home within the 450-square-mile preserve. Visiting here is all about seeing the majestic beasts, though the lodge itself ain't too shabby either. Taj and CC Africa took over the former Churhat Kothi Lodge, let loose -Johannesburg-based designer Chris Brown on the property to transform it from a $300-a-night lodge into a $600-a-night lodge, and voilà! The first luxe Indian safari was up and running.
After a one-hour flight south from New Delhi, it's time to take a white-knuckle, six-hour car ride from Khajuraho, the nearest village with an airport and home to one of India's most stunning sets of preserved temples (and not much else), across Madhya Pradesh. As my sarcastic co-safarist and I enter through the gates at Mahua Kothi, we are relieved by the 180-degree turn in the landscape. The madness that is India's streets and highways gives way to 12 tranquil clay bungalows, called kutiyas, swathed in a forest of bamboo.
Inside, katni stone floors and sol-wood-beamed ceilings bookend a cozy retreat full of indigenous arts and crafts from Fabindia, one of India's most tasteful home-furnishings stores - and there's an inviting king-size bed that begs for anything but safaris. It's the kind of place where you could sleep forever.